Why the Boycott Movement Scares Israel

On Wednesday evening, Scarlett Johansson announced she was ending her role as “Global Ambassador” for the charity Oxfam, after facing mounting criticism over her lucrative endorsement deal with SodaStream, an Israeli company that operates a factory in an illegal colony in the occupied West Bank.

A statement released by Johansson’s spokesperson said the 29-year-old Hollywood actress “has ‘a fundamental difference of opinion’ with Oxfam International because the humanitarian group opposes all trade from Israeli settlements, saying they are illegal and deny Palestinian rights,” the Associated Press reported.

“Scarlett Johansson has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years,” the statement added. “She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.”

“Incompatible”

Oxfam, has not, in fact, endorsed boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), although it opposes trade with Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, a position it reiterated in a 30 January statement accepting Johansson’s resignation.

“While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador,” the charity says.

“Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support,” the statement adds. “Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.”

“New face of Israeli apartheid”

Rafeef Ziadah, a spokesperson with the Palestinian BDS Boycott National Committee, a coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations that had called on Oxfam to dump Johanssonsaid

“Scarlett Johansson has abandoned her reputation as a progressive celebrity in exchange for the check that accompanies becoming the new face of Israeli apartheid. Just like the few artists who played Sun City during South African apartheid, Johansson will be remembered for having stood on the wrong side of history.” 

Ziadah adds: “This controversy has shined a light on the fact that SodaStream is at the heart of Israel’s system of occupation, colonization and apartheid. Retailers that stock SodaStream can no longer claim they are unaware of the role the company plays in Israeli violations of international law and consumers across the world will now see through SodaStream’s claims to be an ethical company.” 

Ziadah also echoed widespread criticism, including by Oxfam’s own Palestinian staff, about the charity’s mishandling of the affair: “Oxfam’s statement today that Johansson’s support of SodaStream was incompatible with her role as an Oxfam ambassador is very welcome, but the great length of time that it took for Oxfam’s leadership to reach this conclusion has disappointed many Palestinians, people of conscience across the world and Oxfam staff and supporters.” 

Campaigns key

Sarah Colborne, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK, said that by “choosing to represent a company that operates in an illegal settlement on stolen Palestinian land,” Johansson had “already suffered major reputational damage.”

Colborne thanked activists and supporters “who made it clear to Oxfam that they needed to break from Scarlett Johansson or risk facing a hemorrhaging of support in the UK and internationally.”

Nancy Kricorian of the campaigning group CODEPINK Women for Peace welcomed the news that Oxfam and Scarlett Johansson “have parted ways,” but suggested the controversy would not be over for the Hollywood star: “We look forward to educational leafleting opportunities at Ms. Johansson’s public events.”

Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, observes that the break-up between Johansson and Oxfam over SodaStream “proves that one can no longer claim to be a humanitarian while being associated in any way with the settlement enterprise.”

“That the BDS movement was able to force this decision in a matter of weeks is proof of the growing power of BDS worldwide,” she adds.

The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation issued a release stating that Johansson’s departure from Oxfam would “strengthen” the global movement for Palestinian rights.

Johansson’s departure follows weeks of protest from Palestinians and solidarity groups, and near silence from Oxfam’s bitterly divided management.

The Electronic Intifada’s extensive reporting on this story can be found here.